Socialism, an alternative to the ills of capitalism in America, is on the upswing in the United States. An essay that aims, through a historical analysis, to remove the tarnish that the vested interests have applied to such a bold concept in their attempts to discredit the political and economic theory for the average American….
by: Arthur Hoyle
As America reels under the presidency of Donald Trump and as our capitalist political-economic system fails to stem wealth inequality and a host of related social problems, socialism is experiencing a resurgence of interest from Americans not seen since the days of the Great Depression.
Leading the way is Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a declared Democratic Socialist running for a second time to become President Sanders. During his 2016 campaign 2.5M Americans contributed to his campaign fund, many of them more than once. Overall, Sanders received 8M individual contributions averaging $27, bringing him a total of $216M. In keeping with his Democratic Socialist principles, Sanders shunned the large donations made through Political Action Committees that his Democratic and Republican rivals relied on to fuel their campaigns. His was a bottom-up crusade intended to return the political process to the people. In the Democratic campaign currently underway, Sanders continues to rely on small donations from individuals for funding. He is currently running neck and neck with Elizabeth Warren in national polls, closely behind Joe Biden, a centrist, establishment Democrat.
Though the most prominent national politician to self-identify as a Democratic Socialist, Sanders has company in the U.S. Congress. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Puerto Rican from the South Bronx who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from New York’s 14th District in November 2018 after defeating the Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in the primary. AOC had worked in Sanders’ 2016 campaign and is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Joining her in the 116th Congress are three minority women with progressive agendas: Ilham Omar, a Muslim from Somalia who represents Minnesota’s 5th District, Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian elected from Michigan’s District 13, and Ayanna Pressley, an African-American who won the seat once held by John F. Kennedy and Tip O’Neill from Massachusetts District 7. Omar and Tlaib are also members of the Democratic Socialists of America. Warren, a progressive Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, though clinging to capitalism, shares many policy positions with Sanders and considers him a friend.
The growing influence of the Democratic Socialists of America as a political force is being felt across the country at all levels of government — federal, state, and local. There are now at least sixty DSA-endorsed officials serving in state legislatures, municipal governments, and school boards in all regions of the country, including the Deep South. And the movement is growing. In 2012, membership in DSA totaled 6,500. During Sanders campaign in 2016, membership increased to 8,500. Following the election of Trump, membership had jumped to 24,000 by July 2017. Two years later, membership stands at over 55,000, and continues to grow. DSA now functions through a national organization located in New York City, and across the country in 200 local chapters that have been established in forty-nine states and the District of Columbia.
Socialism is a political movement with deep roots in U.S. history. Its current iteration as DSA was formed in 1982 through a merger of two progressive groups — the New American Movement, which was the successor to the Students for a Democratic Society, and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, which was descended from the early twentieth century Socialist Party led by Eugene Debs. As presently constituted, DSA is a political organization, not a political party. It endorses and supports political candidates, as well as advocating and agitating on behalf of social issues, such as tenants’ rights and immigrants’ rights. While its members may seek office, they run under the aegis of registered political parties. Sanders is running as a Democrat, as did AOC.
DSA is supported by membership dues and donations. The national organization is governed by a sixteen-member committee chosen by delegates from the chapters, but each chapter operates independently, focusing on local issues and initiatives selected by the local membership, rather than following directives handed down from the national. The organization is structured around principles of decentralization and autonomy that reflect socialist philosophy.
What is socialism, and how does it differ from capitalism as a system for organizing the economic and political relations among the people of a society? Across the ages, different definitions and applications of socialism have been offered by utopian socialists, Christian socialists, secular socialists, scientific socialists, and communists. A number of countries have declared themselves to be socialist, including the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the People’s Republic of China, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the Republic of Cuba, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, among others. Countries such as these, that have collectivized their economies and formed highly centralized governments controlled by a single party have come to be thought of as communistic, and many people conflate socialism with communism. But leading proponents of socialism in America such as Michael Harrington and Norman Thomas have disavowed communist states as betrayers of socialism that have violated its fundamentally democratic principles of equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal participation in the economic and political decisions that affect daily life.
Socialism is an economic and political system that seeks to distribute the wealth of the community through a democratic planning process that benefits all members of the community and that enables each member of the community to develop his or her full human potential. It seeks not equal, but equitable distribution of the community’s wealth from the belief that the fundamental assets, or capital, of a community stem from our natural environment⎯its land, forests, minerals, and geologic deposits. These natural assets have existed since before the emergence of homo sapiens and are the birthright of all. They should be stewarded for the benefit of living generations and preserved for use by future generations. They should not be appropriated by private interests who wish to exploit them in the pursuit of short-term personal profit. Such appropriation socialism regards as a form of theft from the community by some of its individual members. Socialism asks the question: Given that the Earth is bountiful, should some few have far more than they need to fulfill their human potential while many others struggle merely to survive?
These beliefs give socialism a communitarian rather than an individualistic basis for the organization of society. Under socialism, as opposed to capitalism, cooperation, not competition, is the controlling spirit. Socialism seeks to invert the relationship between the productive members of society that prevails under capitalism. Under capitalism, all workers submit to the logic of the profit motive that drives competition. Goods are produced, and services are offered, primarily to obtain profits, and secondarily to meet human needs. Of course, many, but not all, goods and services obtain profits by meeting genuine human needs for food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care. But others, such as nuclear weapons and other instruments of war, generate enormous profits without meeting any genuine human needs, and are therefore wasteful and, in the long run, not sustainable except through the perpetuation of war.
Socialism also reverses capitalism’s relationship to the natural environment on which the human economy depends. The goal is to sustain and enhance the natural world for the long-term benefit of the human species, not to exploit it for the near-term profit of a select minority through wasteful and destructive practices such as clear-cutting forests and fracking the earth. This stewardship approach to the natural world is expressed in the concept of ecosocialism, according to which the human economy should function in harmony with its ecological host and not in conflict with it. Ecosocialism has implications for agriculture, forestry, fisheries, water management, urban design, and the regeneration of rural communities where local residents can build local economies that meet local needs and reverse the trend towards centralization and concentration of economic and political power that has been accelerating as capitalism relentlessly pursues profits.
Socialism as an economic philosophy was first articulated in the first half of the nineteenth century, just at the time that capitalism was formed under the impetus of the industrial revolution in England. Socialism was presented by Karl Marx as an alternative to the exploitative relationship that developed between the owners of the first factories and the wage laborers who worked long hours in them under soul-destroying conditions. But the cooperative, egalitarian concept underlying socialism has a long pedigree, dating at least from Plato’s Republic in the fourth century BC, a time when the economic order was comprised of a small minority of property-owning aristocrats and a large population of slaves who had either been captured in war or forced by circumstance to sell themselves into servitude. The slaves performed the productive work of agriculture and artisanship that supported the property-owning class as it enjoyed leisurely pursuits such as politics, philosophy, and music.
Plato’s Republic presents a vision of an ideal state in which wealth does not exist and rulers are selected for their wisdom and impartiality, after being educated in principles of harmony and justice through training in music and gymnastics. In this ideal state, all people enjoy the necessities of life, but no one is rich. The society is organized into classes based not on a hierarchy of wealth but on economic and social functions. The guardians are the rulers who look after the welfare of the state; artisans are the producing class; warriors defend the state against external enemies. Individuals remain in the class for which they are best suited. There is no “upward mobility,” no striving. The guardians may not own property, nor may they handle silver or gold. They are supported by the other members of the state in compensation for their impartial service to the community. The wives and children of the guardians are also supported by the citizenry. In the Republic, women are the equal of men, and not confined to child rearing and domestic duties. All children are raised by the community. Wealth and luxury are prohibited as vices tending towards discord and war. “As soon as people seek luxuries, and plunge into the unbounded acquisition of wealth, the demand for territory to accommodate new workers increases; the people seek to enlarge their territory at another people’s expense, and war inevitably results.”
The Republic is perhaps the most famous utopian state in western history, but is by no means the only one. The persistence of stark wealth inequality and its attendant social problems across history has consistently provoked alternative visions of social and economic arrangements based on ideals of justice and equality. The Old Testament prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah warned against the consequences of social injustice and predicted the fall of Israel from internal corruption. Many of the teachings of Jesus have a clear socialist message. His saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven is an ironic recognition that the kingdom of heaven will be found here on earth when the wealth that separates men from each other is eradicated. His parable of the loaves and the fishes tells us that there is enough for everyone. And in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the crowd, “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”⎯an observation that points to the superiority of God’s natural creation over human artifice and vanity.
During the period of mercantile capitalism in western Europe, textile manufacturing created vast discrepancies in wealth between the merchants who obtained the raw materials and sold the finished products, and the laborers who converted the raw materials into saleable commodities through what was called the “putting-out system.” In this system, the merchant-capitalist owned the raw materials, the tools, and the place of production. He paid a laborer to produce the finished goods that the merchant then sold for an enormous profit.
The wealth inequality that this system produced was noted by Sir Thomas More, Lord High Chancellor of England under Henry VIII. In his Utopia, More indicted the system of private property that he believed was responsible for the widespread poverty and social injustice he saw around him in England. In More’s utopia, private property did not exist, and each individual contributed through labor to the welfare of all. The work day was limited to six hours, leaving time for leisurely pursuits and self-improvement. In More’s ideal state, “though no man hath anything, yet every man is rich.”
These utopian visions, clearly impractical, were not guides to establishing a new social order. They were commentaries on the existing system, intended to throw injustices into relief through vivid contrast. Their impracticality gave them an almost satirical intent. But when the industrial revolution took hold in early nineteenth century England, reformers with a socialist vision put forward both practical schemes for reorganizing society, as well as “scientific” analyses of the workings of both capitalism and its socialistic alternative.
Robert Owen, considered by some the father of British socialism, was a wealthy textile industrialist who owned a cotton mill in Scotland. He applied to his factory workers the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, his business partner, who had written that the aim of society should be to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Owen took steps to improve the working and living conditions of his employees and sought to reform the English factory system, which he criticized for failing to share its wealth with the laborers who produced it. He set forth his ideas in Social System, published in 1821. He proposed ending the nation state and faulted established religions as ideological buttresses that upheld a status quo in which injustice and inequality prevailed. In 1825 Owen established a colony in Harmony, Indiana to carry out his ideas. The experiment failed and consumed Owen’s wealth, but this did not discourage others from following his example.
Notably, in 1841 the Brook Farm Institute for Agriculture and Education was established by the Unitarian minister George Ripley and his wife Sophia. Operating on two hundred acres as a milk farm, the Institute was managed on the principle of cooperation rather than competition, and provided for everyone employment, housing, medical care, education, and recreation. The community drew on the philosophy of the American transcendentalists (Emerson and Thoreau), and included among its members the author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Though prospering, the Brook Farm experiment came to an end in 1847 when a fire destroyed its central building.
A year later, John Humphrey Noyes, a religious zealot, established a community in Putney, Vermont based on the conviction that the second coming of Christ had occurred. Calling themselves Perfectionists, the members practiced communality in every aspect of their lives, including sexual relations. Driven out of Vermont by scandal, they resettled in Oneida, New York and went into business making silverware. But here too the local clergy were intolerant of the Perfectionists’ “complex marriages,” and drove them out. Noyes fled the country to avoid charges of statutory rape. But Oneida silverware is still on the market today and can be ordered on the Internet.
Socialism gained enormous influence and social impetus through the writings of Karl Marx. His critique of capitalism, co-authored with Friedrich Engels and issued in 1848 as The Communist Manifesto, centered on capitalism’s subordination of the worker to the product of his labor and the means of production. Marx saw that in capitalism, what matters are things that can be exchanged in a market using a price system that brings profit to the owners of the means of production. For Marx and Engels, this organization of man’s economic life produced, from a human standpoint, only alienation and dissatisfaction. Instead, Marx believed, the aim of an economy should be the full realization of every individual’s human potential. Marx lamented that under capitalism, purely material values had achieved supremacy over human values.
During the turbulence of World War I, Marx’s call for the overthrow of capitalism and the liberation of the worker was heeded by the Russian Bolsheviks. Vladimir Lenin led a violent revolution against the Russian monarchy and aristocracy, upending their lives of ease and comfort that were supported by serfs in a feudal society. Lenin, and Josef Stalin after him, built a communist state based on principles of totalitarian control that replaced the concentration of wealth and power found in capitalism with a dictatorial, centrally controlled one party government managed by a small elite of “comrades.” Though the communist system in Russia, and later in China, greatly accelerated their countries’ evolution into advanced industrialization, it did so at the cost of enormous human suffering and sacrifice by peasants and workers, and accompanied by the suppression and punishment of dissident thought and action. Late in the twentieth century, the Russian experiment in socialism collapsed under the weight of its own corruption and inefficiency and reverted to capitalism.
Socialism as a national political movement in the U.S., as opposed to small scale utopian experiments, gained impetus in the 1890s⎯the period of America’s Gilded Age⎯under the leadership of Morris Hillquit, Victor Berger, and Eugene Debs. Building on previously established labor organizations, these men joined forces to form the Socialist Party. Hillquit was the theorist and writer of the group who in 1903 published the widely read History of Socialism in the United States. Though a student of Marx’s writings, Hillquit departed from Marx’s insistence on the need for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the working class. Recognizing the impracticality of this objective in the US, where workers sought not to end capitalism but to gain a bigger share of its spoils, Hillquit advocated a process of gradual transformation to socialism using democratic means: education, propaganda, and the ballot.
Because of Hillquit’s birth in Russia to German Jews who later emigrated to the U.S., Hillquit (birth name Moishe Hillkowitz) was ineligible to run for the office of President on the Socialist Party ticket. Instead the Socialist Party nominated Eugene Debs for President and Job Harriman for Vice President at its 1900 convention. Debs and Harriman received 97,730 votes. Debs was a railroad worker who had organized the American Railway Union and came to national attention when he was imprisoned for violating a court injunction against the Pullman strike. The experience converted him to socialism. He ran for president again in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, when his voting tally grew to nearly one million votes. Because of his opposition to U.S. entry into World War I, Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison for violating the Espionage Act.
In 1924 the Socialist Party nominated Senator Robert La Follette from Wisconsin. He received 4.8M votes and carried the state of Wisconsin and the City of Cleveland. This was the high-water mark of the Socialist Party in American politics during the twentieth century.
The grim social conditions in the U.S. brought on by the Great Depression generated renewed interest in socialism as an alternative to capitalism, but the movement’s opposition to U.S. entry into World War II hurt its credibility with the public. Nationalism, a force that is inimical to the socialist belief in cooperation amongst all peoples, overwhelmed it. In the post-war prosperity that ensued, as wages rose, unemployment fell, and workers moved into the middle class, the appeal of socialism waned. Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party during the 1940s and ‘50s, believed the Party should cease running candidates and concentrate instead on pressing for reforms in the capitalist system that would humanize it by increasing social justice and spreading the wealth. Thomas’s successor, Michael Harrington, formed the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in 1973, then merged it nine years later with the New American Movement to create the Democratic Socialists of America.
Harrington believed that socialists must work within the Democratic Party in order to advance its goals of expanding human freedom and justice. He recognized that divisions of loyalty among members of the working class make expectations of a national or international movement of workers unrealistic, especially in the United States, where individualism and nationalism are powerful ethics. The great flaw in Marx’s theory, Harrington recognized, is that there is no class struggle. All classes are striving for the same social and material benefits: meaningful work, financial security, reliable health care, a promising future for their children. But Harrington also saw the need for socialist ideals in a world where economic and political power were becoming increasingly concentrated and centralized through the momentum of capitalism’s relentless competition in the pursuit of profit. Harrington considered socialism a mechanism for democratizing capitalism from below, making it more responsive to human needs. He also warned against the looming environmental crisis that he saw stemming from capitalism’s unchecked appetite for growth, regardless of its cost to the natural world on which our social order rests. He called for “socialization,” by which he means “the democratization of decision making in the everyday economy, on micro as well as macro choices…It is a principle of empowering people from the base.”
We can see in the political campaign of Bernie Sanders the implementation of this process of socialization. Sanders has built his political strength on the foundation of millions of ordinary Americans from all regions of the country and all walks of life. Though Sanders likes to call his movement a revolution — a fiery term that conjures Bolshevism and frightens moderates — in fact he is an agent of transformation. Regardless of the outcome of his campaign, he has succeeded in moving the Democratic Party in the direction of socialist objectives on issues such as health care, education, criminal justice, wealth inequality, immigration, and climate change.
The history of socialism shows that both small-scale and large-scale attempts to implement it as the controlling mechanism of our economic and political relations have thus far failed. Defenders of socialism who continue to believe in its ideals of greater freedom and justice for all human beings give various reasons for its failures. The collapse of small utopian experiments in socialism are explained as resulting from naiveté about human nature, poor planning, inadequate capitalization, and eccentric leadership. The larger failures of state socialism are viewed as resulting from a betrayal of socialist ideals through the substitution of a corrupt communist aristocracy for an oligarchic aristocracy of capitalists at the center of power. Neither of the two systems has been democratic in the socialist meaning of the term⎯bottom-up democracy. In both cases democratic processes are subverted, and the will and needs of the people are subordinated to doctrines⎯class struggle, laissez-faire⎯handed down from above. In practice, socialism should be a political economy of the local spread across communities with varying geographic and cultural resources, each community working cooperatively to meet local needs through local efforts in a system-wide federation.
Our civilization now faces an existential threat from anthropogenic climate change. Capitalism, with its unbridled appetite for growth at the expense of all other values, has brought us there. A socialist organization of society offers a way to redirect our culture into a better adapted, more harmonious relationship with our planetary host. But for socialism to become an acceptable alternative to capitalism for the average American, misconceptions about the true nature of socialism must be dispelled so that values of individual enterprise and private property⎯ America’s sacred cows⎯are not felt as threatened.
For many, if not most Americans, the word “socialism” conjures up a vision of a centralized, bureaucratic command economy run by the state and controlled by a monolithic political party. They have been indoctrinated with the idea that socialism would eliminate private property, stifle individual initiative, and end freedom of choice. Economic and political decisions would be made by a remote and unaccountable cabal and forced on an unwilling but powerless populace. This soiled version of socialism is propagated by the vested interests who control the nation’s wealth and institutions and direct them to their own benefit. They conflate socialism with communism, a failed system, in order to discredit it.
But in reality democratic socialism seeks to strengthen and extend the democratic mechanisms on which American society relies. It would preserve forms of private property such as home and land ownership, but create more opportunities for individuals to enjoy these sources of wealth through low interest, federally subsidized loans. America’s market driven economy based on private enterprise would be democratized by incorporating worker and community participation in decisions about local investment and production, so that what is produced, how it is produced, and for whom it is produced meet local human needs rather than the pecuniary needs of invisible and far flung investors. Under democratic socialism, all Americans would have access to affordable health care, and decisions about the provision of health care would be made only by doctors and their patients without the interference of insurance companies whose business model is to collect premiums and deny claims.
Also under democratic socialism, every American would be guaranteed a job paying twice the current minimum wage. Military spending would be cut, the savings allocated to improving and expanding the nation’s infrastructure of roads, bridges, tunnels, and rail lines, an investment that would create millions of jobs. The work week would be shortened to thirty or thirty-five hours per week, giving Americans more leisure time to be with family and pursue personal interests. Public funding of education, the arts and crafts, and libraries would be increased so as to give Americans more pathways to personal enrichment and self-development.
The aim of these programs would be to build a truly republican citizenry working together to create a just society in which individuals, by pursuing their personal goals, were also advancing the common good. Democratic socialism does not seek to overturn capitalism. It seeks to transform it, to make it truly democratic and humane.
Taking the socialist path requires a consciousness shift from a competitive model of society based on individual striving driven by ambition, greed, and fear, to a cooperative model based on faith in man’s goodness and capacity for compassion. Viewed in this way, socialism becomes an evolutionary step in the advancement of the human species.
If you are interested in learning more about the current program of the Democratic Socialists of America, visit the website https://www.dsausa.org. You can learn if there is a chapter near you, and how you can start one if there is not.
Arthur Hoyle is the author of The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur, published in March 2014 by Skyhorse/Arcade. He has also published essays in the Huffington Post and the zine Empty Mirror. His second non-fiction book, Mavericks, Mystics, and Misfits: Americans Against the Grain, will be published later this year through Sunbury Press.
Arthur Hoyle is also the author of “The Cassandra Syndrome: Prediction, Uncertainty, and Fear of (Climate) Change,” an in-depth look at the warnings of climate scientists in the context of historical revolutionary scientific theories that met strong resistance from guardians of the status quo which was featured at Across The Margin. A must read!